New report paints 'disturbing' picture of treatment of female prisoners' mental health

A shocking report has laid bare a “distressing and disturbing picture” of the struggle by the Scottish Prison Service to deal with female inmates suffering severe and complex mental health conditions.

A shocking report has laid bare the struggles of the prison service to deal with female inmates with severe mental health conditions.
A shocking report has laid bare the struggles of the prison service to deal with female inmates with severe mental health conditions.

The study by the Mental Welfare Commission (MWC) for Scotland found that women prisoners, some diagnosed with psychosis, were being kept alone in cells which were “sparse and lacking in comfort” for 22 hours a day adding to their distress.

Others had problems accessing vital medication, leading to gaps in their treatment, and as a result, the women experienced a “significant deterioration” in their mental health.

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The report also states the women were unable to readily access intensive psychiatric care beds or secure forensic female beds "due to bed pressures in local services and a lack of provision of female medium secure facilities.”

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Focusing on the cases of nine prisoners jailed between 2017 and 2020, the study by the MWC follows similar research by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the CPT) which investigated Scotland’s police and prison premises in October 2018. It raised serious worries about five women in Cornton Vale including concerns about their segregation.

It also comes five months after a Scottish Government commissioned review of forensic mental health services in Scotland found deficiencies in the female estate and recommended major reform including the re-establishment of female high secure provision at the State Hospital by November this year. The government is yet to respond to the report.

The MWC study found that for the minority of women with complex mental health problems, some were being kept in segregation in their cells for up to 82 days at a time as the SPS struggled to cope with managing their conditions.

It states that “several of the women were acutely unwell with psychosis whilst in segregation. In this environment, they may be locked alone in a cell for up to 22 hours a day or more.

"The severity of the women’s symptoms and level of disturbance appeared to worsen in this environment, as did their self-care and the opportunity for any meaningful interaction with others.”

Recommendations in the report include all prisoners, including those in conditions of segregation, should be given a “bare minimum of at least two hours of meaningful human contact a day”.

Claire Lamza, senior manager (practitioners) at the Mental Welfare Commission, said: “This document opens a window on the lives of some of the most marginalised women in society.

"It gives some insight into the irreparable damage that is being done to those individuals, and we can only imagine the wider impact on their families and communities.”

Currently there are 291 women in custody – 207 convicted prisoners, 73 untried and 11 waiting sentence – with the numbers having dropped substantially as a result of the Covid pandemic.

With a contract awarded last year to replace the existing Cornton Vale women’s prison with a new facility on the same site outside Stirling, the report notes that it is “planned that women with mental health needs will no longer be cared for in the SRU”.

Scottish Labour’s justice spokeswoman, Pauline McNeill described the report as “a wake-up call”, while Scottish Conservative social care spokesman Craig Hoy said the review raised serious concerns which could not be allowed to continue.

A spokesperson for the SPS said: “The Scottish Prison Service takes the mental health of all those in its care very seriously.

“We recognise that women in custody have complex needs and our staff, along with our NHS colleagues, work hard every day to support them.

“Decisions on whether someone should be in hospital is a clinical decision, and not one for the Scottish Prison Service.

“The plans for our new custodial estate for women sees the creation of a gender specific and trauma informed therapeutic environment , but even in those circumstances, supporting women with acute mental health problems will continue to be difficult to manage within a custodial setting.”

Mental Wellbeing Minister Kevin Stewart said: “This is an important report that contains a number of recommendations which will be given careful consideration.

“Our Mental Health Transition & Recovery Plan published in October last year made clear our commitment to continue to work with partners to seek better support for those with mental ill health within the criminal justice system.

“The Plan is supported with £120m from a Recovery & Renewal Fund and focusses on the specific mental health needs of women and girls to support better outcomes across a range of settings."

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